Many years ago I planted hops vines along my fences, planning to use the flowers for brewing. Not long afterwards, I gave up beer for weighty reasons, but in my difficult climate I’m not likely to get rid of plants that grow lustily with no attention. There was also the delightful bonus of hops shoots every spring. Gather the young shoots by snapping them off at the point where they snap easily. This is usually about the terminal 6-7 inches of the vine.
When it comes to cooking them, I’m very opinionated. After trying other ways, I’m convinced that this way suits their rich-bitter flavor best. Rinse the bundle of shoots and cut them in cross section, 1.5-2 inches long. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. You don’t want to crowd the pan too much. A 12” skillet is right for one large bundle of shoots. When the pan is hot through, add a glug of good olive oil, swirl it around, and add the shoots. Toss them around, sprinkling them with a good pinch of salt. Toss the shoots every couple of minutes.
Here’s the part that many find difficult. When they look like this, keep going. Taste them at this stage and, if you like them you can stop here, but I think that you haven’t yet tasted hops shoots at their best. Instead add a pat of butter, at least a tablespoon, and keep cooking.The butter will brown a bit and is important to the flavor.
This stage, in my opinion, is their point of perfection. They have shrunk considerably. The stems are browned in spots and many of the little leaves are brown and crisp. Taste for salt and serve. I find them delicious. They are especially good alongside ham or bacon, and I like them with fried eggs for lunch.
Hops plants are known to contain an estrogenic compound and chalcones. The latter are an interesting group of chemicals with anti-tumor properties, and you can read more about them here. What this means in practice is anybody’s guess, and my own opinion is that it means very little, since the shoots are only in season for about 3 weeks and no one person will eat enough of them to make much difference one way or another. They are a springtime gift of the earth, thrown up exuberantly in great quantities with no effort on the gardener’s part except providing them with something to climb on, and I cherish them as such.
If you plan to grow them, remember that hops are intent on world domination and need a sturdy support. Also, they spread and come up in unexpected places. This is fine with me, since I keep a very untidy yard anyway, but if you like things to stay neatly in their assigned places, the bold independent nature of hops may not be to your taste.
In the area of my property called the Perennial Paddock, I have been doing a deep mulch for about six years, undisturbed except for topping it up with straw and pulling some of the worst perennial weeds. When I can hire help to dig the waste alfalfa and manure out of the animal paddock, it goes on this mulch. The result, to my intense delight, is that where previously I had compacted clay and tumbleweed, now I have dark black soil about 12 inches deep. This area has allowed me to observe that if you have time for the soil to build itself, and keep an endless supply of mulch to spread as needed, you do not really need to do any other soil amendment. You also don’t need to correct pH or any of the other maneuvers commonly recommended for soil improvement. The year that I started mulching this area I invested in a bag of Thorvin kelp meal and spread that around, and since then all I have added is the straw and animal bedding. Lots of it. More than seems to make any sense when it’s dry and fluffy, but it will pack down to a surprisingly thin layer and have to be topped up a few times a season.
The first thing I ever planted here, way back before it was mulched, was a black locust tree. The little twig is now about 40 feet high, and when it is covered with blossoms in April, the entire tree through arms with bees. It provides shade, and I think its widespreading roots are part of what has broken up the soil so thoroughly. In other areas of my yard I have actually had to break up hard packed areas with a pick, but in this paddock the locust tree has done all the hard work for me.
Now it is the matriarch of a wildly varied colony of perennials, and because of the soil quality and moisture level, this is also the place where I experiment with difficult plants. Oca, for example. This member of the oxalis family is a sharp-tasting tuber available in a wild variety of colors. It is native to the high Andes, and a sensible person would realize that it does not want to live in my flat baking high desert area with its brutal summers. But it is so pretty that I can never resist buying 15 or 20 tubers and experimenting. So far I have tried them in a garden bed and in a berry row. In both locations, they grew until about July, then withered and died back, and the tubers that they produced were about the size of a pea or smaller rather than 1-2 inches long as they should be.
This year I ordered my usual optimistic packet of tubers, and decided to plant them almost directly in the shade of the black locust tree, in the deep cool soil that now exists there.
It will occur to the reasonable economist that at this point I have spent a total of about $70 on tubers, and have not yet reaped any return. But no garden is entirely reasonable. If I were only going to grow things that “pencil out,“ I would do fine to just let my entire property come up in lambsquarters, which cost nothing to plant and give an effortless harvest of nutritious greens. But I feel that I would be worse off for having missed the joyous expectation of putting beautiful little earth-jewels in the ground and hoping for them to multiply. If I get enough to harvest, I don’t even know if I will like them, since I have never had a chance to taste them. But I’m not sure how much it matters. Hope is the point.
I get my oca tubers from Cultivariable, a fascinating source for little known Andean food plants. They are usually sold out of the choicest selections by late February, so bookmark them for a look next winter. I have read that oca foliage is also edible, so this might be a nose to tail perennial, but I don’t know yet.
It occurred to me this morning that my lettuce won’t be ready for weeks but there’s no problem at all in filling the daily salad bowl. After years of practicing semi-permaculture and using the results in the kitchen I have strong opinions about salad greens, so I thought it might be worthwhile to go through the ones that I use most.
Major greens: these make up the bulk of the salad.
The picture above is blue mustard, one of my very favorites. It makes up about half of the bulk of any salad in our household this time of year. I wrote about it at more length in my previous post, so what I will say here is that it is a recent invader in my area. It first showed up along the ditch banks about four years ago, and now it is a common “weed“ in my yard. I have no idea where it came from, but I’m glad it’s here. Get it young, before you notice the tiny blue blooms, and I usually harvest with scissors, cutting about 2 inches off the top of the thick clumps.
The second bulk green right now is scorzonera. I have written about it elsewhere, so all I will say here is that although it is often grown for the root, I find the root not worth the trouble, but the spring leaves are mild,crunchy, tender, and excellent to make up the majority of the salad mix. The bloomscapes that come up a little later, harvested before the buds swell too much, are among my very favorite vegetables, so at this stage I harvest individual leaves to make sure I don’t hurt any potential scapes. Take the wider upper half of the leaf, and leave the long stringy stem bit where it is.
it takes a few years for scorzonera to establish and make nice full clumps. I advise against cutting it at all the first or second year.
My third bulk green right now is bladder campion. It took me a few years to get this one established, but now it is a thriving weed and comes up everywhere. The roots are deep and tenacious, so be sure to pull the roots out if you do want to get rid of it. I pull it out of my raised beds but let it romp away everywhere else. Cut off the top 2” and discard any bare stems. During the summer it is weedy and flops all over other plants, to their detriment, so you have to whack at it a bit. But it is always my first green of spring and the last one of fall, so I would never want to be without it. I have heard the taste of the young sprigs described as “exactly like green peas.” I beg to differ. They do have a hint of green-pea flavor but they aren’t sweet and do have an undertone of faint bitterness. I find them delicious, and they are mild enough to go with anything else.
Minor greens:delicious when used in smaller quantities.
Sow thistle has thick leaves with an intensely green flavor. In some soils I’m told that it’s bitter at all stages, but in my yard it’s mild when young. I don’t have much of it, but enjoy what I have.
Arugula has been allowed to self-seed in my yard for so long that it’s now a common weed. I throw leaves in the rosette stage into salad, and any that get past me produce small white flowers that bees adore.
Alfalfa is nobody’s idea of an edible, apparently, but I like a couple of sprigs per serving. I pinch off the top rosette when the first shoots are about 4” high. Only the first growth of early spring is suitable for this use, and no stems.
Oxeye daisy delights the bees when it blooms, and the earliest spring shoots delight me in salads. They are tender, sprightly, and vaguely sorrel-like in flavor. I would eat a lot more of them if I had more. I’m putting in a larger patch this spring.
I use dandelions in limited amounts, maybe 10% of the total salad, but I miss them when they aren’t there. Once or twice a season I eat a big salad of pure dandy greens with a garlicky dressing and a side of bacon, but I don’t often have the materials available. Believe it or not, dandelions aren’t common in my area, and the eight plants that I have were started from seed and fussed over like orchids. I let them go to seed, and hope that eventually my yard will be colonized and I can eat dandy salads whenever I crave them.
Pea greens are a delicious tender green that really does taste like green peas. I plant my peas very thickly, almost touching in the furrow, and then harvest about half for spring salads, leaving the rest to grow and bear.
Seasonings: these have more distinctive flavors. Don’t be too timid with them though, because the dressing is going to mute them quite a bit.
My home area near the Rio Grande has an elaborate venous system of acequias, the irrigation ditches that move water out to farms and fields. Further south, they make local agriculture possible. Even now that my area is urbanized, the ditches are lifeblood. They maintain our water table, and the dirt maintenance roads along them are walking paths where we enjoy fresh air, exercise our canine companions, and encounter our neighbors. For me, there’s an added dimension. They are kept dry in the winter, and the east or south-facing side side of the banks are where the earliest greens appear. By scrambling to the bottom of the dry ditch and walking along the bottom, I can harvest greens growing halfway up the steeply sloping bank, where dogs can’t urinate.
The first plant to appear, often in February, is tumble mustard, also known as London rocket. It is a very hot member of the mustard family, and I don’t much care for it in any form, but the amazing John Slattery can tell you more about its culinary uses: https://www.desertortoisebotanicals.com/blogs/news/urban-foraging-for-london-rocket. Despite my disinterest in it for table use, I gather bushels of it for my chickens, who adore it. Within a couple of weeks I’m gathering eggs with the deep gold carotenoid-packed yolks that I associate with the growing season. So the ditch banks benefit my chickens directly and me indirectly in the earliest weeks of the season.
This week the dock plants on the ditch banks have leaves 6-8”long and are ready to harvest. I made a greens cake based on green onions and dock greens, using five eggs and five egg yolks for an 8” square pan. The flavorings were thyme and black oil-cured olives. The cheese was a grass-fed cheddar. It was utterly delicious but needed a side salad to brighten up the plate and provide even more greens. Enter blue mustard.
By this time the banks have large patches of blue mustard, Chorispora tenella. It’s shown above in flower, which is when you are most likely to recognize it for the first time. I haven’t seen it in foraging books and I have no clue why, because it’s delicious. The young leaves and stems are tender when gathered less than 6-8” high, and have a delightful tiny nip of the characteristic mustard flavor without getting carried away. They are fine cooked but lose their character. Salad is the way to go. Look for dense patches where the plants are shading each other’s stems, and cut off the top 3” with scissors. If the plant is forming buds it is past its tender best and should be left to seed itself for next year. Wash and dry your blue mustard, combine with a few other mild tender shoots ( I used bladder campion shoots,) dress with a good red wine vinaigrette, and dinner is served.
I have moved some blue mustard into my yard too, which germinates later than the acequia population and extends the season a little. It’s pretty in the blooming stage but gets weedy and unattractive when forming seed pods. This is one for the weed patch, not the front yard.
Green onions and green garlic are always the first food to show up in my yard. My onions are the Egyptian and produce hugely with no input from me. In fact, they are becoming a weed in places and need to be dug out. But I would hate to be without them.
Green garlic of the ultra-early Chinese Pink variety is ready at about the same time. I plant plenty the previous fall and plan to eat most of it green, on grounds that I can always buy organic garlic bulbs if needed but can’t get good green garlic anywhere but my own yard. Most of the green garlic that I have seen in stores and farmers market has been overly mature and well past its best. When it is young and tender, you can eat everything up to the leaf tips. Just peel off the lowest leaf and the outside layer of the stalk and you are ready to go.
Green onions and green garlic can be cooked the same way, and I usually cook them together. Slice the stalks in quarter inch cross section and sauté them with a little salt and butter or olive oil for about five minutes, add the leaves also sliced in quarter inch cross section, and sauté until the leaves are tender and done. Taste for salt, and you can eat your allium mix as is or add it to other dishes. It’s good with scrambled eggs or in an omelet with a little cheese, and makes a good side dish for many, if not most, main dishes. It’s great on pita with some pan-grilled halloumi. It can be the basis for a horta of mixed greens. It’s full of allicin and other benefits, but I make it because it tastes good.
I love to make soups in the winter, and have often written about the wonders of homemade broth. I’ve never cared much for any vegetable broth that I have tasted, and I like the deep savoriness and the economy and thrift of making meat and chicken broth. But recently, more or less by accident, I did discover an alternative. I was experimenting with my abundant supply of water kefir, and was cooking it down to make a syrupy glaze of the type that I have enjoyed making out of kombucha. About the original idea, all I can say is please don’t try this with kefir, because the result is rather dreadful. However, having tasted the product of one pot, I turn the heat off under the other one, which had been reduced to a little more than half its original volume. I tasted, thought, added some salt, and had something that tasted savory and surprisingly like chicken broth. Cooked with some aromatics and herbs, the resemblance would be even more striking.
I tried the same experiment with some water kefir made with coconut sugar, thinking that the deeper color and flavor would be attractive in this context. But to my surprise, the faint bitterness that is detectable as an undertaste in brown sugar or coconut sugar was greatly exaggerated in the finished broth, to the point that I threw it out. So save yourself some time and trouble and use plain sugar when making kefir that you intend to cook down.
Since I remain obsessed with fermentation months after first reading the Noma Guide to Fermentation, I decided to try combining various fungi both microscopic and macroscopic in a mushroom broth. I had a quart of broth made from boiling down 2 quarts of water kefir. I started with butter, which made my soup vegetarian, but if you wish to use olive oil or some other vegetable oil instead it will be vegan. Heat about 3 tablespoons of your chosen fat in a small heavy sauce pan, and sauté one large or two small cloves of garlic finely chopped and one small onion sliced thin. Cook them over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until they are thoroughly cooked, soft, and a bit caramelized. Put in 3 tablespoons of mushroom powder. I used dried and powdered Sullius that I had gathered, but the most commonly available powdered mushroom is porcini. Sautée the powder for a few minutes, and add a quart of broth to your pan. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to simmer. Now stir in 2 tablespoons of white miso paste. Taste for saltiness. You might want more miso, but taste it first. I am working on making my own miso, but a good grade of white miso from your nearest Asian market is fine. Simmer the soup for 15 to 20 minutes over low heat.
The final step is to smooth it out. You can do this with a stick blender, but in my opinion there is no alternative to a Vitamix blender to turn your soup into pure velvet. Make sure you know how to handle hot liquids in your blender without creating a sort of fluid explosion. When the soup is completely smooth, return it to the pan, heat gently, taste for seasoning, grind in a little fresh pepper, and serve.
There is nothing quite like the process of fermentation to produce a rich, meaty savor without the use of meat. In this basic recipe, I was experimenting with fermentation as a way to make a vegan or vegetarian product highly satisfying. But if you are not a vegan or vegetarian, there is no reason to feel limited. You can start with bacon fat if you want to, or add chunks of leftover cooked meat, or finish it with a dash of good sherry or a swirl of cream or both. Sautéed mushrooms would be a great addition.
It interested me that despite use of miso, this soup doesn’t taste identifiably Asian. It just tastes good. If you want something that leans more Asian, you could add a piece or two of kombu to the kefir for a few minutes as it cooks down and finish the bowls with some diagonally slivered scallions.
No, not that kind of mushroom and not that kind of experiment. I have been reading a wonderful new book, chef Chad Hyatt’s The Mushroom Hunter’s Kitchen, and it has led to compulsive kitchen experimenting. Hyatt writes about porcini, morels, and the other “premium” mushrooms, but also about more common mushrooms that you never encounter in upscale restaurants but might find a bagful of if you’re a mushroom hunter. He suggests substitutes where appropriate and encourages a lot of experimentation. He has me adding cooked ground black trumpet mushrooms to my umami sauce, and I’m especially interested by his mushroom leathers, in one case made from the Sullius mushroom genus that I no longer harvest because I dislike the texture so much. This makes the despised mushroom sound worthy of a place in the take-home basket.
I happen to have a lot of lobster mushrooms in the freezer, because they are beautiful and plentiful and I can never resist harvesting them when I find them, but the unfortunate truth is that to my palate they have very little flavor at all. I love hummus, and as a low-carb person I can’t eat it often, so I was interested by Hyatt’s recipe for hummus made from salted mushrooms. I don’t have any salted mushrooms at hand currently, but I certainly do have lobsters. They were sautéed in olive oil before freezing, and I decided to thaw a bag and try a recipe based on Hyatt’s. The lobsters went in the food processor, about 2 cups of them, with 1/4 cup of tahini, the juice of two small lemons, two cloves of raw garlic, and some additional olive oil. After a few minutes of processing and adding salt to taste, the taste was good but the texture and mouth feel were not at all what I wanted. I moved the somewhat grainy lumpy mixture out of the processor and into my Vitamix blender, added more olive oil so that the mixture would blend, and blended it on the high setting, stirring the contents down a couple of times. The texture was now exactly what I wanted, not totally smooth like baby food but with a texture much like chickpea hummus. Dolloped into a bowl, sprinkled with ground chipotle chilies rather than the more traditional sumac, and garnished with chopped cilantro, it made a delicious spread. I should add that Hyatt calls for less olive oil than I ended up using, although I didn’t measure precisely. I love the taste of top quality olive oil and lobster mushrooms have little natural flavor of their own, so for me this was a natural adjustment to make.
This first very successful experiment has me reading the book with renewed interest. It can be rather painful to read mushroom books out of season, when there is no way to go out and find the mushrooms, but most of us who hunt mushrooms have a lot of frozen or dried mushrooms from past successful hunts, and this can help us get busy and get them out of the pantry or freezer. Also, specialty grocery stores have much larger selections than they used to. The last time I was in Whole Foods, I counted seven varieties of fresh mushrooms. Buying those hideously expensive little packets of dried mushrooms from the grocery store is not really an option if you want mushrooms in bulk, but you can buy bulk dried mushrooms from several sources. I usually use Oregon Mushrooms or buy from private foragers when I want to augment my pantry supply. By the way, know your forager. Not every forager should be trusted blindly.
In short, if you like to eat mushrooms at all, I highly recommend Hyatt’s book, whether or not you are a mushroom hunter. His creativity is wonderful. For example, there is an entire chapter of mushroom desserts. This is not a category of possibilities that I ever gave the faintest thought to, but the recipes look really good and seem designed to get cooks thinking. And this, to me, is the hallmark of a really successful cookbook. A good cookbook may give me a few recipes that I use verbatim, but it’s more important that it gets me excited about the endless vagaries of food and leaves me feeling that there are more possibilities than I’ve considered. Lifting simple nourishment and avoidance of starvation to an art form is what cooks do, and a good cookbook can get us very jazzed about doing it.
Keep in mind that the book has some very useful notes about lesser-known edibles but is a cookbook, not a foraging book. You will still need a field guide (and some good teachers) if you’re new to the sport.
Hyatt is selling his book directly, in both hard copy and ebook format, at the link above. As always, I don’t accept review copies. Books that I review are bought at the price that you will pay. This one is worth every penny.
At the beginning of the year I like to look back on what worked last year and what is still with me. My major category of experiments this fall and winter was fermentation, and this rich dark meaty sauce paste which incorporates multiple fermented ingredients is one of the clear winners. I try to keep some in the fridge at all times because it’s really useful stuff.
The foundation is black garlic. I have come to love black garlic with passionate intensity, and have also had to sadly admit that my own homemade version is not nearly as good as what I can get commercially. I think the difference is the evenness of heat that can be kept in a commercial fermentation chamber, and a rigged rice cooker or slow cooker just doesn’t work as well. One day, no doubt, I will find a safe way to build a fermentation chamber that holds 140°. In the meantime, I buy it from the sources mentioned in my black garlic post.
To make the sauce paste pound three of the large Korean style single cloves of garlic or the peeled cloves from one head of regular black garlic with a generous pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle. This supposes that you have one of the big Thai ones meant for ingredients, not the tiny things meant for spices. Keep pounding until the paste is smooth. Pound in a tablespoon of butter, avocado oil, or olive oil. When this is smoothly incorporated, pound in a couple of tablespoons of of lacto-fermented cremini mushrooms and their juice (read more here.) When the paste is smooth again, stir in a tease of colatura or Red Boat fish sauce (I use t teaspoons,) a tablespoon of good red wine vinegar and one tablespoon of your own best balsamic-type vinegar (I use my Concord-must vinegar) or high-quality commercial balsamic vinegar (no grocery-store stuff.) Taste for salt and for acid balance, and adjust as needed. You can double or triple the recipe as long as your mortar is big enough.
Now you have a number of possibilities. The paste can be used as is, making sure it’s brought to room temp if you used butter, and can be stirred into soup or eggs or spread on buttered toast or grilled polenta for a tasty side. A spoonful lends distinction to a mug of hot sipping broth. A fewspoonfools are really good tossed into greens at the last minute of cooking. Just don’t be timid with it. The flavors are rich but surprisingly understated. It keeps in the refrigerator for at least a week if tightly covered.
It can be thinned to a more sauce-like consistency with a little broth or a little more oil and poured over hot or cold sliced meat.
My favorite elaboration is, when pounding in the butter, to keep pounding in more, up to four or five tablespoons instead of just one. If you pound enough this creates a smooth mousse, into which the rest of the ingredients can be stirred. It’s superb as steak butter, wonderful on sourdough bread, great spread on a thick slice of Manchego cheese, and I can easily imagine it dolloped over a plate of hot pan-grilled shrimp. I think it would be great as a topping for broiled salmon, and can imagine it lending a deep meaty flavor to roasted or grilled vegetables.
It has become one of the things that I have to have around, and I’m always thrilled when I find things like that.
I can’t say enough about how The Noma Guide to Fermentation is livening up my kitchen experiments, but I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t care much for ordinary lacto-fermentation. All fermented pickles and sauerkraut are made by this method, and with the exception of kimchi I’ve never really taken to any of them. But then I bought a couple of pounds of organic cremini mushrooms because they were on sale cheap and I’m a sucker for a bargain, and had to figure out something to do with them. I tried slicing them, tossing with 4% of their weight in salt, and packing into quart mason jars under pickle weights. I set them aside loosely covered, and when I next paid attention to them a week later the mushrooms had shrunk down by half and the jars were filled with fluid. I sniffed the contents, and was surprised at the strong mushroom aroma. I tasted the fluid and it was salty and had a full mushroom flavor. So I started to experiment.
This soup also contains other recent and past experiments. If there is one thing that I want readers of my blog to do, it is play with their food. Taste, and if the tastes go well together, it doesn’t matter whether you ever saw a recipe quite like it before. The flavor of mushrooms and black garlic seem made for each other, and I wanted to try the combination out. I put about a cup of dried porcini slices in hot water to soak. While they soaked, I started the cooking with two cloves of fresh garlic finely minced and eight peeled cloves of black garlic chopped very coarsely. I melted a couple of tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, and added the two garlic types and three slices of bacon sliced 1/4” wide. I sautéed these ingredients slowly over medium heat until the fresh garlic was cooked but not yet coloring, and added a quart of very good chicken broth, the soaked porcinis and their strained soaking water, half a cup of the fermented creminis and their fluid, and a tablespoon of dry sherry and two teaspoons of Red Boat fish sauce. This mixture was brought to a slow boil, and turned down to a simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile I peeled another eight cloves of black garlic and pounded them to a smooth paste with a good pinch of salt. When smooth, I pounded in a tablespoon of fermented mushroom liquid, a tablespoon of boiled-down kombucha, and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. When the soup was served, a good dollop of this paste was put in each bowl, to be stirred in by the diner. Of course you could just add it to the soup in the pot, but the pleasure of smelling the rich, complex fragrance as the paste melts into the soup would then be lost to all but the cook.
Be aware that lacto-fermentation only preserves food up to a point. After a week fermenting on the counter, the cremini juice is at peak flavor in my opinion. If left at room temp it may go on to develop musty off-flavors. In my kitchen, at the one-week point it goes in the fridge.
I always use quart wide-mouth mason jars for lacto-fermenting. There are wonderful crocks made especially for the purpose, but I don’t want that much of any one product, so I stick with my jars. Good pickle weights will simplify your lacto-fermenting and help prevent mold. Good weights are glass, solid and heavy, smooth on the bottom, and have a handle on top so that you can get hold of them. Cheaper weights are often hollow on the bottom, creating an airspace that invites mold, and aren’t heavy enough to keep the fermenting veggies submerged. Good ones can be bought here or from other sources. I have one hand-thrown stoneware pickle weight that I love, and have also used smooth rounded rocks of the right size after putting them through the dishwasher. This last is unscientific and probably unsanitary but I bet our ancestors did it too.
I am experimenting with kombucha and its culinary uses, but for daily drinking I prefer water kefir. It’s a fermented drink with a mildly yeasty tangy flavor and none of the vinegary overtones of kombucha. It can be flavored in a lot of ways, and it’s quick and fun to make.
It’s produced by a SCOBY, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, but rather than form a solid mat the kefir SCOBY forms rounded globules called “grains.” I had trouble getting started because I kept buying dehydrated grains that never came to life. Finally I bought fresh grains from Florida Sun Kefir and they got off to a flying start. The substrate is water with 1/4 cup of sugar per quart of water dissolved in it. I use a mixture of white and coconut sugar, and brew about two quarts at a time. Pour the water mixture over the grains, screw the lid on loosely or cover with a dish towel tied on tightly, and let it sit at room temperature for 36-48 hours. The grains are in motion during fermentation, rising through the fluid, discharging their cargo of carbon dioxide into the air, and sinking slowly back to the bottom of the jar. They will slow down as the sugar is exhausted. I tell when it’s ready by tasting. When the sugar is fermented totally and none is detectable to taste, it’s done. I pour off most of the fluid in the jar through a mesh strainer and refrigerate until I want to drink it. If you want yours a bit sweet, stop sooner, but I prefer to sweeten artificially before drinking. Leave the grains in enough finished kefir to cover them, add more sugar water, and the grains are off and running again. I then add flavoring and some artificial sweetener, carbonate in my nifty Drinkmate, and enjoy. My favorite flavorings are vanilla or a little good root beer extract or a bit of grated ginger juice. There are all sorts of possibilities including adding fruit juice.`
I can’t explain this, but water kefir really does seem to decrease appetite. I don’t vouch for this effect because I do not find any scientific literature on it except the one animal-model reference below, but try it for yourself and see what you think.
Your grains will multiply steadily and always need food. If you want to store them for awhile, put the jar in the refrigerator immediately after adding fresh sugar water and they will keep about two weeks. For longer storage, drain them every two weeks and add fresh sugar water. You’ll soon have plenty of grains to give to friends. Internet sources tell you to add dried fruit and eggshells for minerals, but I have never done that and my grains multiply just fine. It might be that the coconut sugar I use provides the grains with any minerals that they need. My grains are tan rather than white after several generations in coconut sugar.
In the picture below, what looks like a film on the surface is actually a haze of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide bursting.
One caveat: I can’t find reliable data on this but judging from its effect on me I think that my homebrew kefir has substantially more alcohol that most SCOBY-brewed products, maybe as much as 2-3%. This might not sound like much, but you don’t want to work or drive on the amount of alcohol in a standard 12oz glass. I keep this for evening enjoyment. But I may be incorrect about this,or brewing conditions may affect the ethanol content. Here’s a marvelously nerdy article analyzing the components of water kefir: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3993195/pdf/zam2564.pdf
I can’t stop talking about the marvelous Noma Guide to Fermentation. It doesn’t address water kefir specifically, but I’m curious about the possibilities of cooked-down kefir essence used in the way that the Noma people use kombucha essence. It might also be possible to grow out water kefir grains in other fluids such as juices. After making a few batches of standard water kefir, you will have plenty of grains with which to experiment.
Many internet sources that discuss water kefir give references for its health benefits. However, I spent a cold gray afternoon indoors looking up those references and found that, as I had suspected, nearly all of them actually refer to milk kefir. I don’t find a lot of data on whether water kefir contains the same microorganisms as the milk product, and certainly its nutrient content is different. Here are a few references on water kefir specifically.
Inhibition of metastasis of breast cancer cells in vitro and in vivo in a mouse model:
This last one is particularly interesting because the mice given kefir matrix exopolysaccharides showed anti-obesity effects on an excessive diet and also showed higher levels of Akkermansia bacteria in their feces. Other data (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3670398/ ) indicates that the presence of Akkermansia species in both rats and humans inversely correlates with obesity, probably via interactions with the gut epithelium. Please don’t try to make too much of this: the science of the biome is in its infancy and we know very little about how to impact it for specific effects. So I can only say that water kefir won’t hurt you and may have some beneficial effect.